M9 THE MAGAZINE
The Miss India con- test had been a part of Femina’s annual calendar since the mid-’60s. I joined
Femina in 1979. I was interested in the show so at some point
I decided to volunteer.
I was given the job of receiving people at the airport and
ensuring they got to
Shanmukhananda Hall (in
Sion, central Mumbai) on time
for the show.
Since I was also doing the
fashion pages of the magazine,
I would accompany the contestants to Kala Niketan (a
well-known sari shop in
Mumbai) and help them
choose a ghagra-choli and a
After they won, we would
pack the winners off with a few
sets of clothes purchased at a
budget of about Rs 7,000 ($115
in today’s terms), hand them a
ticket and tell them to have fun.
We never expected them to
return with the crown.
This was how it was for the
But in 1992, Madhu Sapre
finished third at the Miss
Unlike the other girls, Madhu had trained with her father
(he groomed her). So when she came back, Pradeep Guha
(then marketing head of the Times of India group, which
owns Femina) tried to understand better from Madhu what
went into the pageant.
We realized what was going wrong; we used to send these
pretty but short girls out there who did not stand a chance
against the tall, blonde blue-eyed beauties. We had to
reassess our parameters and put together a program to
train the girls.
The next year we sent Namrata Shirodkar.
She did a great job but ended fourth. But we knew that
we were on the right track.
In 1994, we scaled up the contest and took the show to
We had to go scouting for models to participate in the
show. I would stop girls on the streets who struck me as
being model material and ask them if they were interested
I had heard of Aishwarya (Rai) from Pravin Banker, a
make-up man I used to work with regularly. He had
worked with her and he told me that she could be the next
Miss India, even Miss Universe!
My first reaction when I heard her name was ‘What kind
of a name is that?’
But I saw her pictures and sent word asking her if she
could join us.
I was told she was still studying.
For two years — 1992 and 1993 — there was strong speculation that she would participate and I was keen she did.
Finally in 1994, when she participated, there was brouhaha! By then she was a known face on the modeling circuit.
When other models heard of her participation, several
dropped out. Everyone said we’d found our Miss India even
before the contest had started.
That year there were several talented girls. There was
Jesse Randhawa who was tall and stunning and Komal
Rampal who was as beautiful as her brother Arjun is
In the midst of these beauties, no one noticed Sushmita
Sush had been spotted at a night club by Ranjan Bakshi,
then a senior manager with the Times of India Group.
She had appeared in the magazine when she had modeled for one of JJ Valaya’s fashion spreads.
But Sush was still gauche; she didn’t have what Ash had.
Aishwarya was instant magic before the camera. Sushmita,
before the camera, was naive but
Ranjan saw something in her.
At the contest though, no one
really noticed Sush. She was just
one of the many girls in the
All the backstage hands had
their favorites, but Sushmita
was not among them. She was a
Sush was thin, tall and awkward. No one knew her strength
was her speech.
We had only seen her photographs and watched her walk. No
one got the impression of a winner during the qualifying rounds.
Meanwhile, everyone was fawning over Aishwarya. Make-up
artistes would shower special
attention on her. The judges were
leaning towards her.
She won Miss Ten, a title given
to someone with the best body in
Internationally, this is often the
decider. Once you win Miss Ten
at the Miss Universe, you are as
good as home.
But Aishwarya’s body wasn’t
toned; I protested but the other
judges shot me down.
I had heard that many of the
other contestants were upset
because the make-up artistes were concentrating on
Aishwarya in between the rounds. Since she was a known
model by then, they were naturally partial to her.
But Sushmita was working quietly towards winning the
crown. She told me later that she was confident of winning
as long as she made it past the swimsuit round.
It was January 16, 1994, the day of the event!
We’d had some nice evenings that led up to the big day.
There were several celebrities as judges. Actress Neena
Gupta and I were sharing a room.
There were protests outside the venue and we were
slightly worried. But everything went off smoothly.
I used to write the script and everything was going as
planned. Actor Dalip Tahil was the compere and he was
reading out of a script.
At the last minute there was a tie. No one had anticipated this and Dalip was obviously caught off guard. He said:
‘Oh my god! It’s a tie! Who’s tie? My tie? Your tie?’ He had
no clue what to say!
There was utter panic backstage. No one had ever imagined there would be a tie!
The crowning glory
When Sushmita Sen won Miss Universe in 1994 and Aishwarya Rai returned with the Miss World
crown, most Indians weren’t aware of just what the two titles meant.
On the 20th year of the win, Sathya Saran, who was associated with the Miss India contest that
was their stepping stone, looks back at the pageant that would change the fortunes of the two
young women and the aspirations of a newly liberalized economy
ERIK DE CAS TRO/REU TERS